Vice President Mike Pence is known as a mild-mannered politician whose temperament is very different from his boss Donald Trump.

But that didn’t stop him from unloading on New York’s two most prominent Democrats, holding them responsible for their state’s death rate — the second-highest in the nation.

Now political observers are asking if Pence’s attack was just an opening salvo in the GOP’s strategy for handling the politics of COVID-19.

On Buck Sexton’s syndicated radio show, Pence blamed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio for the Empire State’s high fatality rate.

“I’ve worked with governors in both political parties over the last seven months. Our hearts go out to the people of New York,” Pence said. “Literally one in five fatalities in this country were in the state of New York. And frankly, that was a result in part of decisions that the governor made, and the mayor of New York City made. They were slow to respond, slow to act.” 

The interview also aired on the conservative streaming channel The First on Friday.

Cuomo’s performance as a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention was widely criticized for appearing to celebrate New York’s handling of the coronavirus, despite a per capita death rate about 400 percent higher than states like Florida, Georgia and Texas; and about 10 times higher than Wisconsin, Oregon and Maine.

“It was beautiful,” Cuomo said of New York’s COVID-19 experience.

As Newsweek reported, “Cuomo’s words came as New York’s COVID-19 death toll approached nearly 32,900, making it the worst affected state, according to the latest report Tuesday by Johns Hopkins University.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his health commissioner have been criticized for downplaying the crisis in its early days, going so far as to urge New Yorkers to go out to Chinatown restaurants, even as the coronavirus pandemic was getting underway.

“In hard times, New Yorkers know to stand by their neighbors,” Bill de Blasio said on February 13. “We’re in Flushing today to embrace Asian-American owned small businesses and say to all New Yorkers: New York City’s Chinatowns are open for business!”

After the depth of the coronavirus crisis was known, Cuomo was still ordering elderly COVID-19 patients to be moved from hospitals to nursing homes resulting in thousands of deaths among the state’s most vulnerable population. Cuomo didn’t end his nursing home policy until May, after weeks of high-profile public criticism.

And last week, the Associated Press reported that New York’s nursing home death number could be far higher than reported.

When a nursing home patient is moved to a hospital for COVID-19 treatment and dies, the Cuomo administration reports that as a hospital death, not a nursing home fatality. As a result, the AP estimates, the actual death toll is likely twice as high as New York is reporting.

Cuomo dismissed these reports. His state’s health department recently issued a disputed statement saying moving elderly to nursing homes had nothing to do with their deaths. The state legislature is investigating.

By designating Cuomo as one of its party’s COVID-19 success stories, Democrats could be opening the door for the GOP to use his state’s less-than-stellar performance as a counterbalance to criticism of President Trump. As Cuomo’s critics point out, if New York were its own country, it would have by far the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world.

Democratic strategist Joel Payne, who worked on the Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign, tells InsideSources Democrats aren’t worried.

“If the best the GOP can muster up are cynical, flailing attacks on Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo 80 days before Election Day, that is terrible news for Thom Tillis, Cory Gardner, Susan Collins, Martha McSally and every vulnerable Republican whose political career is in the unsteady hands of Donald Trump,” Payne said.

“That dog won’t hunt this November.”

Still, if Trump can turn the focus on the performance of Democrats, rather than a referendum on his presidency, it’s likely to help his chances. Interestingly, Pence also picked up on another likely “Trump vs. the Democrats” theme during his radio interview — their handling of rioting and unrest in the streets of some of America’s biggest cities.

Asked by Sexton which candidates support the police and which “support this anti-cop, almost anarchy,” Pence said he was “shocked that no speaker at the Democratic National Convention has spoken about the violence in our streets and major cities. You see Chicago, Seattle, New York City, literally at times in flames with violence against officers and peaceful citizens. And not a word other than vague references to peaceful protests has been uttered at the convention.”

Pence said he and the president are committed to “not defunding” the police but providing more funding and training.

“We’re not going to defund the police,” Pence insisted. “Not now, not ever.”